How Engagement Can Ruin Leadership

Day after day, week after week, you find innumerable posts extolling the glorious benefits of employee engagement. You’ll read about how engaged employees are more productive, have less absenteeism, apply more discretionary effort and overall improve bottom line numbers by a significant amount. Many of those posts you will find in this blog. So how, in good conscience, can I even imply that leadership could be ruined by such noble and gentle effort? Glad you asked.

Executives are beginning to see the value and necessity of quality employee engagement. They are actually starting to look beyond the mere annual survey and include it in more daily activities to make sure employees are engaged, and fell fulfilled in their work – all the while organizational objectives are being met. It’s a veritable organizational utopia out there, right? Wrong.

tired leaderThe group of people who seem to suffer from employee engagement efforts belong to the layer just below the executives and just above general managers…usually at the Director level in most organizations. They are what I like to call the implementation crowd. They become responsible for important efforts, like employee engagement, and work tirelessly to help make them a success. They believe in these things and want to see the organization improve. There is just one thing missing. What is being done to engage them?

I’m not suggesting this is something malicious or nefarious on behalf of the C-Suite. I am suggesting that it is a common mistake that is based in ignorance. When we hear the word “employee”, the executive team (senior or junior) isn’t the first, second, or even third group of people who pop into our minds. At the end of the day, engagement affects everyone in the organization, as well as external stakeholders such as vendors and suppliers.

Here are a few tips to make sure engagement isn’t ruining the leadership in your organization.

  • Define employees differently – If the word employees trips you up and has a unintended mental association of “them”, then use a different word. Find more inclusive terminology when you’re talking about engagement. Everyone in the organization has to reap the rewards of engagement efforts.
  • Do what you ask of others – If you’re a senior executive or a member of senior leadership and your guiding, coaching, instructing (whatever) someone else in the areas of engagement, you better make damn sure you’re doing the same thing with them that you’re expecting them to do with others. This is Leadership 101, but when it comes to engagement it can have a tendency to slip off the radar.
  • Ask questions – This is the easiest and most cost-effective thing any leader can do. Not only does it help reveal issues before they become problems, it actually helps build healthy relationships and is just good quality leadership. Ask those who report to you how you’re doing as a leader. Ask them if they feel under resourced or need more support/coaching in any particular area. This helps slow them down and give them an opportunity to engage more in what they do.
  • Check for culture alignment – In the process of doing “work”, the reasons for doing that work can get lost. Re-visit the hot points of your organizational culture and check for alignment with the senior leaders in your organization. It’s just as easy for senior leadership to misalign as it is for a frontline employee.

This layer of leadership is crucial to every organization. They keep things moving forward and act as conduits for vision and strategy within the company. Don’t neglect to keep those doing this vital work engaged, or it will ruin the leadership in your organization.

What are your experiences regarding this?

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8 Comments

  1. Perhaps a greater concern is that an ambiguous use of the term ‘leadership’ can ruin engagement. Using the word leadership when referring to management sends a message to those outside of management that they can’t be leaders. It’s going to be very hard to engage those employees if they believe they can’t lead until they get a title. And for those who are in management it makes it hard to develop and apply leadership skills when those skills aren’t differentiated from the unique skills of managing. They will not be engaged if their leadership isn’t duly recognized but merely assumed to be part of the title they have.

  2. Very important distinction, Daniel. The post does make an assumption that there is an intrinsic requirement for leadership at the Director level which can and does influence the organization. While leadership is somewhat implied at this level, one does not have to be at this level of management in order to be a leader. Thanks for make a very valid and important point. I appreciate your contribution!

  3. William, Interesting angle on the engagement topic… I agree that the “implementation crowd” is the one that will make the difference… They are high enough to see the bigger picture and understand the impact and low enough to be able to make a difference… It’s a group we don’t talk enough about… Mike

  4. Very true Mike. It is common to focus on frontline staff and C-Suite and this group gets a bit lost in the shuffle at times. Thanks for your contribution!

  5. In Lean, there is the concept “Go to the Genba”, go where the value is created, look, and see. Often, management disconnect strikes hardest, when executives ignore it, start to live in an ivory tower. Instead of seeing or hearing.

  6. Disconnect through familiarity is a common challenge for most companies. Thanks for your contribution Jens!

  7. Thanks for a stimulating article – in my experience as a practioner it resonated strongly. The people who get ‘squeezed’ are the exact people you describe, and they are burning out as a consequence. We are often asked to provide coaching support which is an abdication of their leaders the responsibility to engage them properly!

  8. I love your candor “…an abdication of their leader’s responsibility…” Truer words were never spoken. Thanks for your contribution, Chris!!

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